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'Sleeper Cell' Begins its Second Season

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

This weekend, two major cable television networks are airing programs that deal with two very different types of terror. HBO will present a dramatic two-part movie on the 2004 tsunami, a natural disaster, and Showtime will offer viewers the second season of the dramatic series “Sleeper Cell” with a nuanced view of the characters. “Sleeper Cell,” the series, is set in a post 9/11 America, complete with a multi-cultural cast.

On Sleeper Cell, the terrorists are ethnically diverse characters with complex lives. They all come together under a common goal of jihad and seal the deal with an oath.

(Soundbite of TV show “Sleeper Cell”)

Unidentified Man: I want you to repeat after me. I pledge my absolute fealty for a life of struggle, a life in jihad, against all enemies of God. I know that any who break this oath, break it to their own hurt.

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible) break it to their own hurt.

COX: “Sleeper Cell” stars Michael Ealy, who began his acting career off Broadway. On the show, Ealy plays Darwyn al-Sayeed, an undercover FBI agent and practicing Muslim who's assigned to infiltrate a terrorist sleeper cell in Los Angeles.

NPR's Farai Chideya recently spoke with Ealy about the sensitive and sometimes controversial theme of his show.

FARAI CHIDEYA: What do people say when they talk to you about seeing you on the show? What did they think of the show? What did they think of your character, Darwyn, and his sort of straddling these worlds of being part of the government and also part of this terrorist cell?

Mr. MICHAEL EALY (Actor, Sleeper Cell): Well, in truth, most people, when they see me on the street, they don't get too in-depth about the show but they do tell me, you know, yo, I love your role on that show. I'm a Muslim myself; I appreciate what you're doing. It's been great, though. I mean, you know, the response could have been a lot worse. And so, you know, I always take a little pride in the fact that people are responding very positively to the show.

CHIDEYA: How do you relate to your character, Darwyn? I mean what about him is you, and what about him is not you?

Mr. EALY: He's much more brave than I am. You know, I can tell you a story about that actually. A couple of weeks ago, I was driving in Hollywood and this girl was running out of a parking lot screaming that's my car, that's my car. I was looking in my rearview mirror and I saw which way the car made a left, and so I just literally went into like hero-mode and sped up and drove like a wild man in trying to chase his car. And it was like I didn't find the person, but at the end of the day I mean I caught myself and was like what are you doing.

I've got to shake off this character. Like I said, Darwyn is a lot more brave than I am in that sense. The other half of your question, as far as the similarities between us, I think we're both very passionate people and we both seem to be very loyal to those we love.

CHIDEYA: Those are all great qualities.

Mr. EALY: I'd like to think so.

CHIDEYA: On “Sleeper Cell” even the characters who are willing to just kill bunches and bunches of people are then shown to have some kind of a center. Does that attract you to the show as well?

Mr. EALY: Yes. The short answer, yes. I think if we look at these people who are terrorists - and I call them people because that's exactly what they are, they aren't monsters; they're people - you know, if you're disenfranchised, being misled is very easy, you know, whether you're a gang member, whether you're, you know, just a kid who never had any love, you're a foster child, you feel completely disenfranchised.

And often times someone comes along and gives you some sense of belonging, some sense of family, or some sense of spirituality. You're going to listen to him, you know, and you're going to do what they say. You're going to - you might end up being more of a follower than you are a leader.

So I think for me one of the things that we really focus on the show is to try and show that these people are human, that these people have issues that are human, and that we all go through, you know, problems with a job and all that stuff that really kind of influence their decisions or make it very difficult for them to live and this is why they're disenfranchised.

And so it's good to see the reality of the situation, in my opinion, at the source as opposed to looking at some shallow evil person and saying they're just a bad guy, that's all there is to it. You know, this issue is so much bigger than good versus evil. It really, truly is.

CHIDEYA: I don't know whether you practice a religion or not, but if you do, how did that affect how you relate to these questions, these big questions that you're kind of throwing out there with the show?

Mr. EALY: For me, I grew up Southern Baptist and religion was mandatory in my mama's house, and what that gave me was a great foundation. Since I've left the house, since high school, you know, I found my own relationship with God. Is it rooted in Southern Baptist? Yes. Did that help me with this character? Yes. My understanding, my ability to be open and listen to the Islamic consultant and talk to Muslims about their faith I think stemmed a lot from my own faith.

I mean when I look at someone who's Muslim, I don't look at them as being, you know, an alien to me. They're not foreign to me because at the end of the day I understand what faith is and I understand what it brings to my life. I understand what it brings to their life. My personal faith is very similar to Darwyn's personal faith in that, you know, we believe in a higher purpose, and we believe in a higher God. And when things go bad, you know, you've got to give it up; when things go good, you've got to give it up. And that to me is what faith is.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm going to leave it there, Michael. Thanks a lot.

Mr. EALY: Thank you. Thank you very much.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with actor Michael Ealy, who plays Darwyn al-Sayeed on the Showtime series “Sleeper Cell.” Their second season begins this Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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